When Dick Allen quit the Chicago White Sox last September, few considered it his last goodby. Allen had always been a late starter and an early finisher, whenever possible avoiding spring training, pregame and postgame activities and the tail ends of lost seasons. People reasoned that baseball's only $250,000 player could not long afford a dozen or more racehorses whose feed bills exceeded their purse money.
But where would the itinerant nonconformist land next? Philadelphia, St. Louis and Los Angeles had traded him in successive years. For a while things had gone better in Chicago—an MVP award and a genial relationship with Manager Chuck Tanner—but his departure chilled the White Sox, too.
Curiously, the Phillies were willing to give it another try. As Rookie of the Year in 1964, Allen had been a local hero, but five seasons later he was, as a writer said at the time, "the most disliked and unhappy player in baseball." Allen had dismissed the fans and newspapermen long ago, but this was a new team with new players, a new manager, a new general manager and a new ball park. Even so, it was the same old Philadelphia, and Allen was not interested.
The Atlanta Braves tried next. Hoping to find the home-run hitter and gate attraction to replace Henry Aaron, they gave the White Sox $5,000 for negotiating rights and promised a player if Allen signed. But he wanted nothing to do with Atlanta or Manager Clyde King.
Meanwhile, Allen, a licensed horse trainer, was rising at daybreak to ladle the oats. The more the nags consumed, the more inviting Philadelphia began to look. In late January he invited Broadcaster Richie Ashburn, Second Baseman Dave Cash and Third Baseman Mike Schmidt to his Perkasie, Pa. farm.
Between bites of barbeque, Allen peppered his guests with questions about the Phillies. What was the batting order, the pitching rotation? What were the players like? "I felt very strongly I wanted him with us," recalls Cash, "but I wasn't sure how he felt."
Philadelphia fans, it seems, wanted him, too. Kind of. In a Daily News "Lowe Him or Leave Him" poll a month later, the ayes prevailed 1,531 to 887.
Faced with Allen's objections to Atlanta, the Braves were willing to make a trade. They wanted home-run-hitting Greg Luzinski or 16-game winner Steve Carlton, to which the Phillies responded by offering three lesser players. "I didn't want to give up anyone who would hurt me," General Manager Paul Owens said. "I liked the lineup I already had and I hoped pressure would build on the Braves to take anything they could get."
When Atlanta failed to react, on March 20 negotiations ended. And back on the farm, Allen started getting itchier. He was not playing, he charged, because the White Sox refused to fulfill his contract. It was a ridiculous suggestion of course, since he had been the one who skipped town. But the kind of pressure that comes from being listed on the All-Star Game ballot without a team to play for was building. "Asking me if I want to play," he said, "is like asking somebody else if he wants to eat."
The Phillies had been playing poorly. Schmidt, last year's major league home-run champion, was not hitting, Carlton was not pitching well and the team had lost nine of its first 15 games. Part of the problem was the uncertainty over Allen. "A lot of guys were in limbo, thinking they might be moved or traded," says Cash, "so we had a meeting and told them, 'If you go, you go, but while you're here, you play baseball.' " So they did, reeling off five straight wins.
In Atlanta, the Braves had finally given up on Allen, who was refusing to return their calls. On April 27, when the Phillies were the only team to claim him from the waiver list, trade talks resumed.
Last week, after 10 straight hours of off-and-on telephone negotiations, the deal was made. The Phillies got Allen and Reserve Catcher Johnny Oates in exchange for three minor-leaguers and $150,000. The problem of where Allen would play had been solved the day before, when First Baseman Willie Montanez was traded to San Francisco for Centerfielder Garry Maddox. "Just a coincidence," insisted Owens. "The two deals had nothing to do with each other."
The trade was announced at an overflow press conference last Wednesday. Clutching a borrowed bat, Allen was positively angelic. "I'm not anticipating any trouble," he said. "I've learned a lot through my journeys. There's a lot of difference between a man and a boy. I'd like to think I've grown up."
The Phillies would like to think so, too. Finishing their swing through St. Louis and Atlanta in high spirits, they agreed to a man that the East Division title was all but won. "With Maddox and Allen," said Catcher Bob Boone, "we've got the toughest lineup in baseball."
Even Tommy Hutton, Montanez' temporary successor, was pleased. "When Willie was traded I thought, 'Great, I'll play regularly.' Now, with Allen, I figure maybe I'll get a World Series share."
The one melancholy note in the bubbly chorus came from rookie Alan Bannister. In less than a week he had lost his position to Maddox and his No. 15 to Allen. "Great for the team," he sighed, "lousy for me."
Manager Danny Ozark was feeling good all over. With Allen's contriteness, he could not imagine any of the problems which had cost two Phillie managers their jobs and prompted another to say, "God Almighty hisself couldn't handle Richie Allen." Bull Luzinski said hopefully, "He's too smart to hurt us. He knows we have a chance to win it."
Back at Veterans Stadium, the 33-year-old superbly conditioned Allen was preparing himself for his debut this week. Except for two batting-practice pitchers he was completely alone, a status he had favored in 1969, that last stormy year with the Phillies. "I wish they'd shut the gates," he said then, "and let us play ball with no press and no fans."
What happens with the gates flung open should be interesting.